Finding and Retaining Good People - with Debbie Peri

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Debbie Peri

Debbie Peri
Professional Development Consultant
for Results Accountants' Systems

Michael Platt: We are fortunate today to be joined by Debbie Peri to discuss finding and retaining good people.

Let me take a minute to introduce Debbie: Growing up in Northern California and Scottsdale, Arizona, Debbie completed her undergraduate work at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She returned to Scottsdale where she earned her C.P.A. while working for Ernst and Young in mainly audit and consulting. Her clients included emerging growth companies and public corporations such as American Express, where she spent 8 months working as a consultant with their reengineering team.

After 2 years of saving her overtime pay, Debbie decided to pursue her dream of traveling overseas for as long as her savings would allow. One year later, after living and studying in Montpellier, France and traveling throughout Western Europe, she returned to the U.S. She joined American Express' business travel division as a Project Leader, overseeing the performance based incentive plan for over 10,000 employees, before relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area and coming to Results Accountants' Systems.

As a Professional Development Consultant with RAS, Debbie has worked with over 100 Boot Camp firms, helping them to redesign the way they work with their teams and their clients. By implementing the Boot Camp strategies, they're empowered to shape their practices into the entrepreneurial experience they envisioned when they initially went into practice. A vital part of this process is finding and retaining good people to help their practices grow.

Today's session is interactive - ask questions whenever you want. Debbie, the floor is yours.

Debbie Peri: Thanks Michael! I'll start with the agenda I'd planned for today, if anybody would like to cover additional topics please let me know.

Today we'll cover 3 main areas 1. Lay the foundations for a working environment that your people will be passionate about, and a firm that people want to be a part of.

2. Different ways and places to find those 'good people'

and finally 3. Keeping them engaged, satisfied, productive, and for a long time!

Linda Parsons: How do you feel about Behavior Based Interviewing?

Debbie Peri: It does work for some firms. Linda, have you used this method before? If so, how did you use it?

Linda Parsons: I have used it once.

Debbie Peri: Is anybody familiar with David Maister's work?

David Maister is a Harvard Business School Professor who is recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on Professional Service Firm Management. He has written 2 books – "Managing the Professional Service Firm" and "True Professionalism." Both are highly recommended reads.

He's found, through his research, 10 main factors in creating a workplace your people will be passionate about and want to be part of.

Debbie Peri: Those 10 points include:

1. Appreciation for good work
2. Feeling "in" on things
3. Help with problems
4. Job Security
5. Salary or wages
6. Interesting work
7. Promotion chances
8. Loyalty to/from workers
9. Working conditions and
10. Tactful discipline.

Al MacKay: I am familiar with him. I have just recently read several of his articles pertaining to results and rewards in multigroup firms.

Debbie Peri: That's great Al. Have you used any of his recommendations?

Al MacKay: Just research at this point.

Debbie Peri: Glad there's some familiarity with Maister's work. Looking at these 'Top 10', let's start with the first one, 'Appreciation for good work.' Would anybody like to share what you do in your practice to show your team members you appreciate their efforts?

Al MacKay: First and foremost is an honest "Thank You" from management when a job or task is done well.

Debbie Peri: Al, you're exactly right. Those 2 simple words are quite possibly the most underutilized words!

Jack Crenshaw: Firm recognition rewards, have a client recommend a staff citation, etc.

Debbie Peri: Jack, would you mind sharing what the latest firm recognition reward was about?

Jack Crenshaw: Just a certificate to the staff person for something above and beyond - I think the last one was delivering an audit report to a client at his vacation home 100 miles away.

Linda Parsons: We just complete an OpTeam Recognition Week (instead of Secretaries Week).

Debbie Peri: Linda, that's great. What are some of the things you did for that week?

Linda Parsons: We did something every day - balloons and popcorn; small flower arrangements; a surprise 15 minutes walk outside; silly hat day. Also, some of the more routine duties, such as mail routing was done by an "upper management" member of the team.

Debbie Peri: Linda, those are great ideas. Does anybody have 'Team Member of the Month' awards?

Linda Shearl: Our Firm has an Employee of the Month Nomination Form and if drawn and read is given a $50.00 check. Our Firm also holds and annual Retreat for all employees.

Jim Kraus: We are instituting a "Staff Retreat" which is modeled after our "Partner Retreat" to encourage teamwork and communication

Linda Parsons: We have team member of the moment.

Teri Daniels: What's that Linda?

Al MacKay: In the past working with GE and others in the power industry I found that "Employee of the Month" awards usually became "He Who Messed Up Least" awards. It leads to a perception of worthlessness. We found that impromptu rewards worked best.

Linda Parsons: That's where team member of the moment came from. Catch someone doing good and instantly recognize it.

Debbie Peri: What about the second point by Maister, 'Feeling "in" on things. What are some of the things you do to foster an open environment? Regular team meetings and an 'open door policy' are a great way to make sure team members feel part of the firm. During these meetings you can also introduce a section called "bouquets and brickbats" (this name comes from our Australian office) where anyone who wants to publicly acknowledge the efforts of a team member can do so, and use brickbats only to make light of something that went wrong--but never single out an individual mistake.

In addition to these ideas, it's great to do little things like take your team out to lunch or dinner if they've been working hard, or buy them some flowers/movie tickets/candy and give them a hand-written thank you note so they know how much their efforts are appreciated.

Michael Platt: Debbie, why don't you share some of the best practices from some of the firms you've worked with in this area?

Steph Bryan: These ideas are great! I'd like to add that I think firms need to watch who they put in charge of recruiting before any of this comes into play. Debbie ... is that something you do on your own, or on behalf of your firm?

Teri Daniels: Everyone always says that money is not a great motivator, and that the rewards should be personalized. Is there an easy and efficient way to do this in a firm of 75 people?

Debbie Peri: Sure Teri. Do you have a mentoring program for team members?

Teri Daniels: No we don't.

Debbie Peri: Mentoring is a great way to be sure everyone gets the individual attention they need. Assign a mentor to each team member and have them get together at least once a month to 'see how things are going'. You may offer to pay for their lunch, which while a small expense, can go a long way towards being sure you're aware of how happy your team members are.

Teri Daniels: We tried a couple of times, but everyone wanted the "favorite" partner who ended up with too many responsibilities

Debbie Peri: That's understandable Teri, but every team member has something to offer.

You'll all want to explore Maister's top 10 in more detail. Here's some structure to help you do that. As a group, have your team address these 3 simple questions:

Group Action 1: How well does our firm rate on this condition?
Group Action 2: How well does my own role rate on this condition?
Group Action 3: How will we move towards a 10 in our firm? Notice in particular the differences between the ratings the partners give and that the team give.

Steph Bryan: Many people favor the anonymous surveys, as well. This is a good way to explore employee's feelings, without putting any pressure on them to say the right thing.

Debbie Peri: Steph, that's true. We have a 'RAS Basic' survey we do every year. We then meet monthly to work on areas that need improvement.

Steph Bryan: I was in a situation once where that was really needed, but the company did not implement it.

Al MacKay: In my situation we have no one to mentor our team so we address these issues by way of team sessions that provide an open forum for discussion of what is going on and how we can support one another.

Ryan: Al, that's a great idea. Sounds similar to meetings we have called "Solve it Alls" where team members can get together and discuss concerns, get updates, etc..

Donna Barcroft: Surely there's more to finding & retaining staff than simply rewarding them for a job well done -- how do we find them? How do we motivate them to operate at a higher level?

Steph Bryan: Donna, I missed the beginning of the workshop so I am not sure what type of people you are looking for, but here our firms work with the local university and recruit vigorously. The firm-university relationship has made a big difference here in how the firms find "good people". In particular, the firms work with the Accounting Honor Society, Beta Alpha Psi.

Debbie Peri: Donna, I'll address that with the Uni of RAS in a few minutes.

Debbie Peri: Good people exist, so how and where do we find them? First things first....

1. Evaluate every vacancy before calling for interviews.
2. Look for 'new blood' rather than 'one of us'
3. Imagine the ideal candidate for the vacant job
4. Review all job descriptions for your team when a vacancy is created.
5. Use a vacancy as an opportunity to reassess the need for the job
6. Check whether the qualifications required have changed for the job
7. When writing the job description, do not underplay difficult aspects
8. Check the salaries of similar jobs in other companies
9. Make job titles aspirational. This will encourage people to grow into them.

Once you've done this work internally, you'll be ready to go out to the market to find team members.

When going out, try different methods like forming an alliance with an employment agency where they proactively address your recruiting needs and your clients', as opposed to waiting to when you have a vacancy to fill. The internet opens up a world of possibilities as well. Some sites to try: (Results Accountants' Systems has a new Job Board),,

Al MacKay: Steph, I have noticed recently that major firms are targeting potential recruits as early as their sophomore year. Is this a growing trend in the industry?

Steph Bryan: Yes, I am actually a student myself and I intern with KPMG and am the president-elect for Beta Alpha Psi. There is a lot of discussion about this, and it is very true more-so in some places than others. I know that I may be interning with sophomores this summer, Al. It seems that the only thing keeping that from being more of a reality is the lack of interest of the sophomores.

Debbie Peri: Al's exactly right. You can beat the Big 5. Approach the local schools and gain access to the future job candidates you might be targeting. Involve the schools in some sort of business strategy game that will expose your firm in a positive way in your community, and make the students realize that all Accounting Firms are not boring, staid number crunching factories.

Ensure your ads are different too. One ad we use is "Could YOU become a Professional Development Consultant in a company that's changing the face of business around the world?" Some examples of ads CPAs have used successfully are "Available-Career Opportunity of a Lifetime for an Accountant" and "Not Your Ordinary Bean Counters.” They differentiate your firm.

Also make every contact with your candidates an experience - show that you're different. They'll be interviewing with many companies. Make your firm stand out in their mind as a place that they'd like to be involved with and you might just tip them over the edge in your favor. It's not all about money. Think about the working environment that they'll be coming into. Some ideas you could use are: Conduct the interview outside the office. Try the local coffee shop or park. Have the entire team meet the candidates over morning tea. Give your candidates a thank you card signed by the team, thanking them for taking the time out to meet with you.

Jim Kraus: We deal with "moving targets" for job vacancies, the qualifications may change several times during a search and since we're dealing with internal politics it's impossible to show frustration, also forcing "new blood" into the organization is difficult, any suggestions?

Debbie Peri: Jim, Probably the best thing you can do is continually change your job descriptions with the agencies and universities you work with, and the Internet sites where you post your openings.

Steph Bryan: The Big 5 can definitely be defeated! In our fraternity, we have a very nice mixture of Big 5, regional and small accounting firm interests among our students.

Michael Platt: Steph, what are some of the "draws" for local firms that students respond to?

Steph Bryan: The best thing that the smaller firms have going for them is the experience that they can offer! A lot of students, including myself, felt that you could "learn" more from a smaller firm. Smaller firms seem to let their employees experience "a little bit of everything", whereas for some of the Big 5, interns especially could end up doing data entry.

I felt that I would need to intern with a smaller firm myself to gain the knowledge that I was looking for out of an internship.

Debbie Peri: Steph's right. Money is definitely not everything. A challenging and nurturing environment is important.

Al MacKay: There was a good article on recruiting in the Feb. Journal of Accountancy in regards to hiring "Gen-X" CPAs. In that article "life-style" issues ranked very high in level of importance and it is there that the small firm can prevail over the Big 5. Just as Steph pointed out.

Steph Bryan: Al is right about that ... even in our fraternity we have many non-traditional students with children, etc.

Debbie Peri: And don't just wait until you need people. Have your antenna up every day - regardless of your existing personnel needs. If you find a good candidate, snap them up! Regardless of whether you are looking for somebody at the time or not. Chances are there are a lot of things you could be and should be doing in the practice that you're not because of a lack of time and people - if you take them on now, it won't be long before they are being well utilized.

Ask the right questions during the interview. The standard interviewing questions such as "What are your strengths and weaknesses" have probably been well rehearsed by the candidates. So it may make it very difficult to get a good feel for the person at the interview.

You may want to try "Tell me about one person that has a profound impact on your life and why" or "In five words, how would your best friend describe you?"

Involve the entire team in the recruiting process. We do this with the Uni of RAS. I'll go ahead and go over that approach now.

The University of Results is a structured and creative way to approach the recruiting process for your firm.

Step 1: Place an "out there" kind of advertisement, like the ones we talked about earlier in the chat.

Step 2: Invite applicants to phone and be prepared to impress us

Step 3: Screen all messages for voice clarity, articulation

Step 4: Invite those candidates you're interested in to the "Uni of RAS" (put your firm name in the place of RAS).

Step 5: Wow all attendees - introduce your team so they can see all the people they'd potentially be working with.

Step 6: Explain how the session will work and hand out workbooks to the candidates.

Step 7: Present an overview of the position and explain the vision of the firm.

Step 8: Begin some exercises that they can complete in the workbook - you may want to consider a case study, a writing test, or a customer service question - or do as a group. For example, give a 2 minute talk about why they're interested in joining your firm

Step 9: Advise candidates that they may leave at the break if what they've seen is not for them.

Step 10: Take a snack break so that all team members can mingle with the candidates

Step 11: On return from break , have the candidates take the floor one at a time to answer some question such as "From what you've seen tonight, tell us what you can bring to the role of PDA or PDC" or even Tell us about one person who has had a profound effect on your life & why.

The final steps of the Unit of RAS include: Step 12: Throughout the entire evening, your team is marking their assessment forms for group review at the close of the session.

Step 13: Make a closing speech and thank the candidates (present them with handwritten thank-you cards as they leave).

Step 14: Ask candidates to hand in resumes and workbooks on departure.

Step 15: Have a team meeting and decide which candidates you'd like to invite in for the next step in the process, based on their assessment sheets, workbook answers and resumes.

Step 16: Invite those candidates in for team morning tea & have entire team meet with them again.

Step 17: Make offers to the most qualified to join your firm.

Michael Platt: Debbie, on average how successfully would you say the firms you work with succeed in this approach?

Debbie Peri: Michael, many firms have seen two to three times as many good candidates and filled their team member needs in a couple of weeks as opposed to a couple of months or longer.

Michael Platt: Great!

Steph Bryan: I have seen word-of-mouth work for people, also...and don't be afraid to set your standards high!

Debbie Peri: Steph, that's exactly right. Referrals are a great way to find clients AND team members. You may want to offer an incentive for team members to refer good people to your firm.

Steph Bryan: Well, I agree with you Debbie. First you have to look for the right attitude ... it's those people that you look for referrals from!

Debbie Peri: But above all, recruit people with the right attitude! Hire talent. Technical skills can be learned later.

Steph Bryan: Very true!! Look for people who are willing to and enjoy, even, working hard!

Al MacKay: Debbie, I agree that you hire attitude and talent but you must also look at how they interact with people. Lets face it that interpersonal relationships are key to fostering teamwork. No matter what the job.

Debbie Peri: Al, sure! That's why it's great to have your team meet them, and in a forum such as the Uni of RAS.

Michael Platt: Good point Debbie. In the time we have left, does anyone have any particular questions for Debbie or for the group that have not yet been addressed?

Debbie Peri: And above all, when you find these people, you'll want to keep them. Here's a 6 step action plan we use here at RAS

1. Be sure and implement the 10 important job conditions from Maister and the rest will be much easier.

2. Conduct Career Development Meetings regularly with your team (this focuses on the future: performance reviews simply focus on the past).

3. Recognize and reward performance. Be generous in your acknowledgement of team efforts and they will continue to be inspired to deliver.

4. Create a continual learning environment. Encourage them to learn new skills to help prevent them from being bored on the job. If a candidate really believes that they will learn and grow as a result of joining your team, you've got a far better chance of winning them.

5. Adopt what is new. Potential candidates look for progress firms that tackle new things, have good equipment and premises.

6. Have fun with this! Encourage your team to take time out occasionally to share a joke, and have fun. Productivity will not suffer if your team spends 10 minutes a day having a laugh---it will actually improve.

Steph Bryan: I will add that feedback made the biggest difference for me in how I felt about my internship experience.

Debbie Peri: Steph, feedback is definitely critical. Consider 360 reviews too, where team members evaluate each other and their managers.

Steph Bryan: If you implement 360 reviews, is it anonymously?

Debbie Peri: Yes, the reviews are. Someone compiles them and summarizes the feedback anonymously.
Steph Bryan: Wow! That is a good idea! Thanks

If you'd like any ideas on how to implement, please Email or call me. My Email address is [email protected], the number here at RAS is 1-800-800-5601.

Michael Platt: Debbie, any last thoughts?

Debbie Peri: Michael, I'd just reemphasize the need to hire the right attitude and have everybody involved the process.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today, and to everybody who participated. And congratulations on getting through another busy season!

Michael Platt: Great, thanks Debbie for everything! We really appreciate your insight

Debbie Peri: Thank you Michael!

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